I watched Girls Behind Bars last night, a programme which has been following some of the inmates in Cornton Vale, Scotland's female prison. Quite frankly the whole programme has been completely depressing if informative, with the almost inevitable reoffending; the ease of access to drugs within the prison; and the lack of any sort of hope for the inmates upon release clearly showing how damaged and failing our prison service is.
But last night's sickened me beyond even those failures.
One of the key stories in the episode was about a girl from Aberdeen who was in the prison due to the crime of trying to kill herself. In public. We, as a society had witnessed that she obviously had serious issues and decided that the best course of action was to lock her in a prison.
I think it was Mother Theresa of Calcutta who said that you can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, and this is a stunning indictment of our failure.
This girl should not be in prison. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she is need of serious counselling support and therapeutic intervention - and yes, given the seriousness of her situation and self-harm (which was at levels that were terrifying) possibly to be taken into a controlled environment for her own safety while she received support. But to throw her into a prison, with only the half-hearted attempts of a psychiatrist to intervene is criminal - if she was to successfully kill herself in that situation then we as a state would be an accomplice to the act.
The prison guards who had to watch her 24 hours a day and who repeatedly had to remove ligatures from the girl commented on the fact that they knew they should be shocked by the self-harm they were observing, but that they had become immune to it since they see so much of it in their job. How can any support be given to individuals such as this if the very staff, who are not trained for that role anyway, have had their emotional responses deadened and blunted.
We complain about the levels of our prison population, and yet we seem to do little to deal with the epidemic of self-harm and mental illness that is rampant in our prison system. We complain that drugs is the root to the majority of the crime that inmates are in for, and yet drugs are commonplace, easily accessible for the inmates - in fact, some of them become hooked for the first time in prison, cementing their place in the criminal justice system.
And some inmates reoffend in order to get back into prison, where they are safe and surrounded with friends. We offer these inmates no hope and no support when they leave the prison at the end (or long before the end) of their sentences. Being tossed out of a prison where there is access to TV and creature comforts in the rooms; where there is support from friends; where is the comfort of routine; into some hellish bedsit not fit for habitation with no job or prospects - it is quite frankly a miracle if anyone manages to stay off drugs or avoid reoffending in such a situation.
The prison system needs to be reformed, drastically. We need a complete review of the current approach to sentencing, removing imprisonment from crimes where it is not a suitable response. We need to increase funding for counselling services in the prison system, for both inmates and staff in order to support them and try and deal with some of the issues which may contribute to antisocial behaviour. We need to crack down on the dealers of drugs, implementing strict punishments which reflect the parasitical nature of these criminals and their role in damaging society.
As a society we are failing those who need our support and creating problems for ourselves. We need to change this system so that people can escape it rather then be thrown away, lost forever with the daemons of their own past. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime - it's great rhetoric, but we need to see some action to back it up.
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